By MIKE FLETCHER
Click here to see file photos from the blizzard of 1978.
When Joe Slabaugh went to work at the city street department on Jan. 25, 1978, he had no idea what he was in for.
“We were called in during the night [of Jan. 25] to start salting the streets,” Slabaugh recalled. “[Forecasters] were expecting some snow. But they weren’t expecting what we got.”
What the city ended up with was more than a foot of snow, wind gusts of 55 mph and wind chills near 50 below zero — the worst blizzard in Indiana’s history.
“It was a real light snow at first,” he said. “It wasn’t amounting to too much. Then it started getting heavy close to the morning. Once it broke loose, there was nothing we could do to keep up with it.”
He was on the job 33 hours before getting any relief.
“I never expected that at all,” he said.
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Abandoned and stranded vehicles littered the streets, making it nearly impossible for the crews to clear the snow away.
“We had a heck of a time keeping the main roads clear to the two hospitals. That was our main priority. There were a lot of cars getting stuck and abandoned. Washington and LaFountain streets looked like a snake as we winded around trying to keep one lane open. I never saw anything like that.”
Slabaugh recalled it was three days before he could get home.
“The civil defense brought cots in, and we had to sleep right there, get up, wash off and get back at it.”
Slabaugh said the salt crews earned the nickname snow birds because, “whenever it started snowing, we were there.”
The 34-year street department veteran remembers being stationed near the downtown fire station on North Washington Street to help plow the fire department’s snorkel truck and ambulance out when needed.
“We sat there with a walkie-talkie and every time they had an ambulance run or a fire run, we would plow their way in and out to a main road. We done that for four or five days until things got settled down.”
Slabaugh said a lot of people in four-wheel drive vehicles, snowmobiles and National Guard trucks helped deliver medications to the sick and elderly and transport those in need to hospitals.
“After about two to three days, we tried to stop at a store or restaurant to get a sandwich, but nobody had anything. The restaurants were completely out of food. Their trucks couldn’t get through. It was really bad.”
There was so much snow, the city installed a snow blower on one of the trucks and used it downtown to get all the snow out. The blowers shot the snow into dump trucks and transported it to Foster Park.
“It took about three days before we could get the downtown half-way movable.”
The streets crews worked 16-hour days for four to five weeks before going to back to normal hours cleaning up the snow, he recalled.
“It was really unbelievable. I never saw anything like it in my life. Basically, it shut down Kokomo and the biggest part of the state for three to four days.
Howard County Sheriff Deputy Craig Trott was an Explorer for the sheriff department just starting his career when the snow began falling that evening.
“I remember a helicopter ride from the sheriff department to Howard Community Hospital delivering supplies. It was the first time I rode in a helicopter,” Trott said.
“I just remember, the state and county plowed the snow so high they couldn’t pile it up any higher,” he said. “I just remember how tall it was — towering over the cars. They brought down big snow blowers from Michigan to clear the downtown. When the big augers hit the snow banks, it threw it 150 feet. Those things really did the job.”
Don Mills, a retired officer of the Kokomo Police Department, was working patrol that evening.
“I was sitting down at Markland Avenue and Washington Street at the gas station lot watching it snow and watching it get deep. That was incredible. I saw some old pictures of the blizzard the other day. I remember the next few days after that picking up a lot of nurses and taking them to work. We had either Plymouths or Dodges back then that went through the snow pretty well.”
Mike Fletcher may be reached at (765) 454-8565 or via e-mail at email@example.com
For the record:
The blizzard of 1978, spanning from Jan. 25 to 27, which virtually shut down the city and county and closed schools and businesses, was labeled as the worst blizzard on record. The snow began falling late on Jan. 25 and continued until early Jan. 27.
Winds gusted to 50 mph late on Jan. 25 and wind gusts of 55 mph occurred on the 26th. Visibility dropped to near zero and 10- to 20-foot snow drifts closed roads and stranded motorists.
Wind chill temperatures dropped to near 50 below zero. Maximum snowfall from the storm reached 20 inches over of central and southern Indiana and up to 40 inches in the northern part of the state. The weight of the snow caused several factory and warehouse roofs to collapse.
A federal state of emergency was declared.
Source: The National Weather Service
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